A Dharma Glimpse: Life and Death – Neither Beginning nor End

This is a Dharma Glimpse that I originally presented on 9/15/19 as a participant in the Lay Ministry program of the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism

I was recently on an outing with a friend visiting the grounds of a local Vietnamese Zen Temple located in Frederick, MD. The Temple grounds are located inside a wooded area and feature many large, traditional statues of different Buddhas and Bodhissatvas, as well as other structures that stand alongside the various paths that run through the campus. While observing some of the statues we suddenly heard a subtle rustling in the trees above us, a noise which ended up being a large wasp tackling a large cicada to the ground next to us, killing it.

While animals and insects in the wild frequently hunt and kill as a means of nourishment, the act of killing has a much more complicated point of view when it comes to humanity. “Do not kill” is a common guideline for right, moral living. It is the “law of the land” in virtually all nations, it is the sixth commandment of Abrahamic religions and it is the first precept of Buddhism. From the most strictest of interpretations, this is an impossibility to completely observe – we can go our whole lives without intentionally harming another mammal, living vegan and saving each insect that we may happen to notice enter our dwellings: We will still almost certainly harm other insects or animals in one way or another. Yet, we can all certainly agree that this is still a right and moral observance, one that helps us foster a greater sense of reverence for life around us. But what about once a form of that life has ended?

As I looked to the insect who had fallen prey to the attack of its predator, I couldn’t help but ponder the new state in life that this insect had just entered: death. As a culture, we so frequently add a layer of social stigma to death: perhaps seeing it as the end of the road, the finale or a “dead end”, the erasure of all that ever was of us or someone or something else. But does a parent’s affect on the world cease when they expire? Or the contributions of a teacher to their students? And what of the remains of these individuals?

From a certain perspective – in all life, we can see the entire stream of life itself from the beginning of time. All life that has ever interacted with any other life will continue on in that life and so on and so forth. As for the physical remains, the scientific law of conservation of matter goes: “Matter cannot be created or destroyed”; The physical remains of the deceased will simply continue on in the world in some other form. Life (or more accurately birth) need not be viewed as the beginning and death need not be viewed as the end. Rather, they are merely stages along this constant cycle of life and death that we are constantly walking around. Let us bear this thought going forward in our recognition of all of life in its various forms and stages around us, recognizing the oneness of it all.

May all beings be happy and at peace.

Image from Flickr


It’s Okay to Mourn

Yesterday, I read an announcement from the church that I go to that there’s going to be a service about calling to mind happy memories of dead loved ones. This is a fine sentiment until I noticed that the announcement had a note at the bottom.

Note: this is designed as an upbeat service. If you are grieving from a recent loss, please consider sharing a memory of someone you remember fondly from long ago or simply listening to other happy memories.

It’s bad form for a church to silence the grieving.

Woman, Train, Zugabteil, Farewell

Remember:

It’s okay to grieve.

It’s okay to mourn.

On the day my mother died, the presence of Amitabha and the embrace of my wife allowed me to mourn and eventually heal. In times of pain, an other power, in whatever form, can be a lifeline.

Likewise, when Shakyamuni met those who mourned, the Buddha allowed them to do so. The Blessed One listened and so should we.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from Pixabay

A Lesson From Hargon

Hargon, the devotee of destruction in the Dragon Quest series, took his spirituality very seriously. As one of the main antagonists of Dragon Quest II, he lead a legion of minions to summon his deity Malroth, a god capable of destroying all that exists.

The priest took his practice so seriously that when the heroes of the game confront him, his first reaction is “Who’s there? Who’s disturbing my prayer?”

I get that.

I like a nice quiet service as well.

There are days when a quiet practice is impossible at my apartment. I will be in front of my shrine, chanting or sitting, when suddenly all manner of noise will come booming from the hallway. Sometimes it’s a dog. Sometimes it’s jubilant children. Sometimes it’s a couple of adults in a heated debate.

It’s good to remember that practice environments don’t have to be perfect and that one should adapt to the situation at hand. That was certainly true at First Unitarian.

When I held services at the church, I would always have to adapt. One day I had to perform a service next door to a lively religious education class that was quite loud. Normally, our services included a period of meditation but I was concerned that the noise from the other room might be a bit too disruptive. However, I had an idea.

I asked the participants to sit quietly but focus on my chanting. After the session, one of the participants noted that the chanting helped her turn her attention from the noise. I was not sure if it would work, but I’m glad it did. This is how adaptation can be helpful.

The same goes for everyday practice. It’s not practical to expect some sort of perfect serenity. Sometimes a cat throws up in the sacred space.

It’s best to just go clean it up. One can chant and use a carpet cleaner at the same time.

This is likely why the Buddha emphasized action and mindfulness over ritual. In the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta, he explained that through precept practice one was pure regardless of ritual. Likewise, in the Sarakaani Sutta he explained that, when simply remembering the Buddha, one would not “fall into states of woe.” Shakyamuni seemed to have a sense that the spiritual life needed some wiggle room.

So we can learn from Hargon that we should not take our spirituality so seriously that we become rigid and resentful of odd disturbances. Maybe it was Hargon’s rigidity contributed to his downfall. That and a determined band of heroes.

Instead, when we are pulled from sacred practice maybe we can just smile, laugh, or even utter a blessed phrase.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from dragonquestfandom.com

When Locks Give Way to Trees

For the first time in a few years, my wife and I walked along the C&O Canal. There I got to see a recent restoration project where, at the section that passes by Williamsport, the park service repaired an aqueduct.

To do this, they had to drain much of the canal that still held water and had to clear many trees from the towpath. Though I understand the desire to preserve some of our history, I’m not sure it is truly worth it to destroy habitats to do so.

Image result for c&o canal pictures

Restoration is often a rebellion against impermanence.

As we walked farther down the towpath, we looked at the trees that have made a home on the dirt that filled much of the old canal. At that point, one can only see that the canal is there because the land dips into a broad ditch.

Nature can reverse what we build. I find both some sadness and solace in this.

It is natural to want to preserve things. I’m quite fond of temples, cathedrals, traditions, and old video games. Would I like to see them preserved?

Yes.

It may be best to try to wisely preserve some things, and let others go. At the same time, we should make space to mourn what we lose.

As the climate change continues to unfold, we are seeing impermanence on a scale we may have never seen before. In order to adapt, we will have to realize that we can’t take everything into the future.

It wont be easy, though.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from aaslh.org

Bombu Nature and the Climate Crisis

The internet is ablaze with naysayers regarding the climate crisis protests. Some folks seem to think of those protesting in the Extinction Rebellion as easy to dismiss because they’re hypocrites in one way or aother.

Yes, we are all hypocrites in one way or another. Right now my wife and I are more car dependent than we used to be. When I walk into the grocery store, I find it hard not to purchase greens that are in some sort of plastic, some of which is not recyclable. The systems that holds our society in place make it hard to practice an alternative. Not everyone can just go off into the woods, cut themselves off from the grid, and live like an eco-hermit.

Sunset, Evening, Romantic, Sun

This is what it means to be bombu, foolish beings.

In many traditions that focus on Pureland practice, it’s important to know one’s foolish nature. One sees that, in one’s current situation, they contribute to their suffering and the suffering of others. Much of it is unavoidable, even when they try their best. One could say very truthfully that there is quite a bit of hypocrisy amongst those who try to follow the Buddha.

Not everyone can follow the precepts completely. The societal and environmental systems that we are under does not allow it.

However, we can try our best, which is better than giving up. We can do what we can with the options available to us. Little by little we can improve. And good can come from it!

Some faith helps.

So yes, many of the Extinction Rebellion protesters are ordinary people who likely drive cars and get plenty of food wrapped in plastic. That’s the system that we are dependent on. With some awareness of our situation, perhaps we can do something to change it.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from Pixabay

Green Space as a Pure Land

I just came across a Facebook post from WYPR (Baltimore’s public radio station), about re-imagining the city’s Inner Harbor. I noticed that and in the comments there are people wishing to see the area turned into green space.

There is much to like about urban living but, in my time at Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood, I learned to value green space as there is not much of it around there. True, there is a nice little park that sits within Charle’s Street and Monument Street, but in my view, it’s not quite enough. I found that being surrounded by pavement and brick was one contributing factor in what came to be a three-year depressive state.

Bridge, Japanese Garden, Arch, Park

Now that I’m back in the Hagerstown area, where I am surrounded by mountains and trees, I’m feeling a little better. Part of it could be because I’m back home, but I credit a lot of it to all the green around me.

I felt the same reaction at Amida Mandala. Just being among the greenery and flowers of the temple garden helped bring about a sense of ease. Going up to the top of the Malvern Hills was a little taste of freedom. I feel the same way in places like Chua Xa Loi near Frederick and Hagerstown’s city park.

Spaces like these act much like a pure land. If one were to read about Sukhavati, one might imagine a vast park, lush with trees and pools that shine with jewels. I would guess that many Buddhists of the past imagined the Pure Land to be similar to the early viharas, just a little more adorned with decorations.

In light of climate change, it would be wise for us to create as many green spaces as possible. Creating pure lands, whether they’re protected forests, pocket parks , or even just some flowers in a pot, is essential, not only for conservation, but also for our hearts, which not so long ago dwelled among leaves.

We should also remember that a young bodhisattva, known as Siddhartha, found refuge under a tree.

In brief:

We NEED green space.

Not retail space.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from Pixabay

Practicing Alone (Or Am I?)

In a week, I will be holding Jeweled Tree’s first live service on Youtube. Frankly, I’m a little nervous because I’m not sure if anyone will show up.

I’ve been in this situation before when I held services at First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. At that time, it was helpful to remember my late friend Hoin, a Zen practitioner of Burning House Zendo.

Candle, Light, Candlelight, Flame

Hoin was a very gentle and practical guy who was a natural teacher even if he wasn’t officially recogonized. He helped me learn to sit for the long periods of time required by the group’s practice sessions. He was always very warm to new folks and always encouraged people.

He was also known for his commitment to practice.

According to some of the senior zendo-goers, Hoin was just as happy to practice by himself as he was to practice with others. He would arrive at the zendo and, if no one else came in, he would hold service anyway. A few folks said that they would find evidence of this the next day. They weren’t specific to how they knew but I suspect it was a change in the arrangement of cushions.

His commitment helped encourage my individual practice. When I approach the shrine in my house, I sometimes remember Hoin, and then also remember that it’s important to practice the forms as best I can whether anyone is watching or not.

It really doesn’t matter if one is the only person making the offerings. At Amida Mandala, it’s considered important to keep practicing so as to hold the space for others.

At the same time, however, we are never alone in our practice, especially when we are in the presence of the Buddhas.

Namo Amida Bu

Photo from Pixabay

The Pain Behind the Anger

A few days ago, I was part of an interfaith prayer walk for drug addiction awareness. The experience was quite nice, however, at the beginning of the walk, something unexpected happened.

Someone noticed our group and was not happy to see us. As they pulled their car up to the intersection where we were standing, they rolled down their window and told us to stick the cross where the sun doesn’t shine. They repeated this several times.

There have only been a few times where I have seen someone so passionately angry. From the sound of their voice the anger was coming from a place of pain.

Though I don’t want to go into too many details about them, from my point of view, they seemed to be both a part of a racial minority and the LGBTQIA community.

Upon hearing the insults, one of the prayer walk participants decided to respond to this person by saying “We love you!”

This did not quell their rage. In fact, they became even more furious.

Tiger, Animal, Water, Rain, Nature, Dark

I’m not sure exactly why they were angry but I would guess that they may have been hurt by a Christian community. It may be that whatever trauma or frustration they have inside, suddenly arose at the sight of what looked like a Church group.

Considering that so much suffering has been brought about by conservative Christians in America, particularly toward minority and LGBTQIA communities, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some people express anger toward religious groups.

So to say “We love you!” is to be dismissive. It would be better to reflect on why they were expressing themselves in such a way.

I’m not defending the person’s actions but I can see that whatever anger they have is likely justified. It’s important to listen to the pain that lies behind that anger.

The Buddha and Jesus met people where they were and listened to their suffering. It would be wise for us to do the same.

Namo Amida Bu

Image from Pixabay